It was an innocuous lot, set to appear at Ansorena, an auction house in Madrid, on Thursday: an image of Christ before the crucifixion. Titled The Crowning of Thorns, the oil painting was attributed to the workshop of 17th-century painter José de Ribera. Layers of dirt had obscured its details. The starting bid was 1,500 euros ($1,780).
But days before the auction, the work was pulled from Ansorena and hit with an export ban. Experts from the Prado Museum, having perused the event’s catalog, contacted the Spanish Ministry of Culture with the evidence that the painting may in fact be the work of Caravaggio, making it worth millions of dollars. In a statement, the Ministry cited “enough documental and stylistic evidence” of Caravaggio’s style to declare it an asset of cultural interest.
The evidence includes the painting’s dramatic lighting and shadowing, which were signature elements of Caravaggio’s early works. Ribera, known as “Lo Spagnoletto,” or the Little Spaniard, in Italy, was a known admirer of Caravaggio.
At least one expert on the team, Maria Cristina Terzaghi, a scholar who has focused on Caravaggio’s art, is sure of its authorship. “It’s a Caravaggio, I have no doubts,” she told El País.
In a statement, Spain’s culture minister, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, applauded the swift effort to keep the painting in Spain.“It could be that, in the end, it’s a painting by a disciple of Ribera, as it was said. But, in any case, our decision is very appropriate because the painting is very valuable,” Rodríguez Uribes said. He stressed that there is no formal confirmation, but “hopefully it will be a Caravaggio.”
Both the Ministry and the Prado Museum stressed that this is only the beginning of “a long process” which can sometimes take years. Before experts make any decision on whether the painting is truly a Caravaggio, the canvas and pigments must undergo technical and scientific analysis.